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Nigger, Please?

By Kathy Y. Wilson · January 14th, 2004 · Your Negro Tour Guide

"Can you go get my gun for me so I can go lock up some niggers?"

That's what I hear then-Sgt. Jeff Butler say -- tired, frustrated and angry -- at the videotaped tail end of a February 1999 Cincinnati Police Department internal investigation of allegations that officers bilked overtime pay.

There are two things worse than his casual, on-camera toss off of locking up "some niggers." Actually, three.

First, it's offensive and frightening that Butler (or any white cop) could even crack a joke over the idea of busting some black skulls to alleviate professional frustration. It's dangerous being a cop. Not in the cops-and-robbers way you're thinking. I'm thinking it's dangerous to be unable to separate and redirect anger, that guns and badges become excuses to arrest black justice.

Funny thing is, Butler wasn't joking. And it gets you thinking: Just how many of our white cops think and dare to speak the frustration rooted in race-specific retaliation?

How many? Let's go to the videotape.

The second thing worse than Butler saying he'll "lock up some niggers" is former Fraternal Order of Police President Keith Fangman's unflinching response to the comment. Indeed, every cop in the room moves to the next order of business like it's, well, business as usual.

I'd like to get a look at the written police examination, because I'm thinking you've gotta be a stupid-ass to sit there with your colleagues -- including one who is leading an internal investigation -- and not even go through the motions of chastising the nigger-lipped cop.

Finally offensive is Police Chief Thomas Streicher's dodge-ball tactic when he viewed the tape during questioning from attorneys for the Owensby family (see Tale of the Tape).

The Owensbys are embroiled in a civil lawsuit against the city for the police custody death of their son, Roger Owensby Jr.

Streicher identified Fangman in the videotape and then hedged on Butler's identity, though the two men have known one another practically a lifetime.

An off-camera voice asks Streicher if he heard Butler to say: "Can you go get my gun for me so I can go lock up some niggers?"

"I didn't hear that," Streicher says.

The tape is replayed for Streicher. He's again asked if he hears the phrase in question.

"I've never seen that tape," Streicher says.

Smooth operator.

Once when CityBeat News Editor Gregory Flannery and I both toiled as beat reporters at The Hamilton Journal-News, the entire city was agitated by a pending day-long Ku Klux Klan rally slated for a Saturday on the courthouse steps. Sheriff's Department spokesman Chuck Barrett was charged with media contact -- you know, controlling who would have access to which parts of the city.

During the pre-rally fracas, Flannery, then the police beat reporter, interviewed Barrett for a story outlining police strategy. Huge crowds of onlookers, possible agitators and media were expected to converge on Hamilton, a city that prides itself on concealing its ills in an unspoken conversation plagued by racism, classism and sexism.

Hamilton is built on the ward system. The Second Ward is a poor black enclave just across the tracks from the police station. Imagine the Vine Street corridor of Over-the-Rhine shrink-wrapped to half its size, and that's largely the Second Ward.

What about the Klan, Flannery asked him. How will you control them?

"It ain't the Klan we're worried about," Barrett said. "It's them niggers in the Second Ward."

Barrett -- like our Butler, our Fangman and especially our Streicher -- took the presence of other white men as a pass to be free with the worse of racism. In their world, silence is acceptance, "nigger" is another word for all blacks, "yes" means "no" and standing against the pervasiveness and derision of systemic racism is unheard of. And why not?

Butler has obviously never been checked, reported, disciplined or chastised before, so why not let his nigger flag fly? Who'll stop him?

In Hamilton, Barrett was busted down to junkyard clerk, checking serial numbers of impounded cars to see if they'd been stolen. That's a far fall for a man who'd not gotten his hands professionally sullied in a long time.

We reported it in The Journal-News because Barrett had the super-sized balls to utter the slur to a reporter whose note pad was out and whose pen scurried down the lines.

In Cincinnati, we've got Butler's racial gaffe on videotape, and now people want to round off the razored edges of "locking up some niggers" with the distracting examination into whether Butler is actually saying "nigger." Please believe me, Butler says "nigger" so freely in the videotape he doesn't choke, hesitate or even slur the slur.

It's easy to hear nigger when you've heard nigger before.

Hear Kathy's commentaries on National Public Radio's All Things Considered.


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